Justus Sheffield looked impeccably clean as he sat down for his postgame video interview. Not so much in the slang sense of his appearance and attire, which was whatever current word is being used by young adults as a compliment for looking good — fresh, drip or on point.
No, he looked clean in the literal sense. There were no remnants of baby powder or mustard on his skin, no chunks of ketchup or other substances still stuck in his hair that even a long shower can’t remove.
Why was this notable?
Well, Sheffield had just notched the first major-league victory of his young career, delivering perhaps his best outing as a member of the Mariners in a 5-3 win over the Rockies and by tradition he should have looked much different postgame.
Under normal pre-COVID-19 circumstances, such an accomplishment was met with a beer shower, which is a little bit more aggressive than it sounds. Sheffield would’ve been led into the shower, most likely in his uniform and doused with beer — hence the name — by teammates. But in recent years, Mariners players have thrown in basically anything within reach — liquid, gel or powder — into the deluge, including shaving cream, condiments of every flavor, any sort of beverage in the clubhouse fridge and more.
But under the MLB protocols for this season, such gatherings in the clubhouse — with or without masks — are forbidden. So Sheffield escaped a celebration that feels more like torture.
“Yeah, I actually lucked out,” he said. “With COVID, about the only good thing coming out of it was not having to go through the beer shower with mustard and baby powder and all that getting thrown on you. The experience of it would have been cool, but you know for my my breathing and my health’s sake, I’m glad that we didn’t end up doing it.”
Manager Scott Servais could have celebrated the outing with his own private beer shower.
In the hours before the Mariners took to the field at T-Mobile Park, with the roof closed on a perfect summer Sunday due to MLB protocols, Servais met with the media via video conference call and said they needed Sheffield to “carry the load” with the underachieving bullpen overused and scuffling from the past few losses to the Rockies.
Sheffield did that and more, providing a delicious glimpse of hope as to the pitcher he could become for the Mariners in the seasons to come. There have been hints and bundles of innings where this sort of outing seemed possible, but most had come in short bursts or in the eased nature of spring training or summer camp intrasquad games.
“We’ve seen some outings like that, leading into spring training and summer camp,” Servais said. “But to see him perform on the main stage, it was awesome to see. He was in total command for all six innings he was out there. The future is very bright for him.”
The young lefty tossed six scoreless innings, allowing just four hits while striking out seven batters and not issuing a single walk.
“It set the tone,” Servais said. “We’ve been struggling offensively as well, so for him to go out and shut that team down says a lot.”
The Mariners close out the homestand by avoiding being swept in the three-game series. They flew out after the game to Dallas-Fort Worth to begin a nine-day, eight-game road trip, starting with three games against the Rangers at brand-new Globe Life Field.
Sheffield did all the things the Mariners preach about finding success, throwing first-pitch strikes, winning 1-1 counts and staying efficient within the strike zone. He shut down a Rockies offense that came into the game scoring five or more runs in 11 games and leading MLB by averaging 5.50 runs per game. Sure the starting lineup didn’t feature stalwarts Nolan Arenado and Daniel Murphy, who got days off, but it was more about Sheffield’s command and efficiency.
“They key to the whole game, and we’ve talked about it the last few days, is dominate the strike zone,” Servais said. “Shef was ahead in the count with a lot of first-pitch strikes, I think, at least 70% today, and that really set everything up for him.”
Indeed, Sheffield threw 91 pitches in the game with 61 strikes. Of the 22 batters he faced, he generated first-pitch strikes on 16. In the other six at-bats where he didn’t deliver first-pitch strikes, he came back with a strike on the next pitch. He didn’t have a 2-0 count in his entire outing.
Can Sheffield remember an outing that efficient?
“I’m sure I have one sprinkled in there somewhere,” he said. “But honestly, after my outing, I look back on it that night and the next day, and then after that, I’ll flush it and get back to work and look forward to the next one. I was able to execute the plan today. That was great.”
That sort of outing is something that Servais has been harping on to his young pitchers — starters and relievers.
“We’ve been hammering it, and you’re going to continue to hammer it with our guys,” Servais said. “Even though we’re young and we’re inexperienced, the game is still the game. And the quicker that we can get our guys to trust their stuff early in the count — I don’t care who’s in the batter’s box. The reason our young guys are here is they’re very talented, and we’ve got to get them experience. But they’ve got to get the right mindset when they take the mound or get in the box and that is about controlling the line of scrimmage, controlling the strike zone.”
The only batter who generated contact with an exit velocity of more than 100 mph was Charlie Blackmon, who is arguably the hottest hitter in baseball. Blackmon had a first-inning double with a 107-mph exit velocity to extend his hitting streak to 13 games. He advanced to third on a passed ball and was the only runner to reach third while Sheffield was on the mound.
Besides Blackmon’s double, the only other runner to reach scoring position off Sheffield came in the fourth inning. He gave up a leadoff single to Blackmon, who had nine hits in the series, and with one out Sheffield allowed a single to David Dahl. With runners on first and second, Sheffield got Elias Diaz to pop up on the first pitch and then struck out Ryan McMahon with a nasty slider to end the inning.
Sheffield threw his slider 42 times in the game and had nine swings and misses, seven called strikes, five foul balls and five put in play with just one hit.
“I was able to land it in the zone and was able to start it in the zone and work its way out for strikeout counts,” he said. “Just got to continue to work on it. That was the main focal point this week and being able to land it. So that was good to see.”
Dylan Moore provided Sheffield with some early offense against Rockies starter German Marquez. A night after breaking up a no-hitter in the sixth inning, J.P. Crawford, batting in the leadoff spot, started the bottom of the first with a crisp single to center, bringing Moore to the plate. Marquez, the master of the slider, threw a fastball that Moore hammered over the wall in right-center for a two-run homer and a 2-0 lead. It was Moore’s third homer of the season.
After the stellar outing from Sheffield, Servais was forced to turn the game over to his bullpen, which has to feel like rolling loaded dice with your rent money on the line.
Erik Swanson delivered a brilliant 1-2-3 seventh inning, striking out two batters and showing a fastball that touched 97 mph.
The Mariners’ offense even gave the bullpen some insurance, scoring three runs in the bottom of the seventh on a sacrifice fly from Evan White and back-to-back RBI singles from Tim Lopes and Dee Gordon.
And those insurance runs proved to be needed.
After getting two quick outs in the eighth inning, Dan Altavilla couldn’t get the third out, issuing a walk, giving up an RBI single, issuing another walk and giving up another RBI single. Servais went to right-hander Taylor Williams, who immediately allowed an RBI single to Matt Kemp to cut the lead to 5-3. But Williams came back to strike out Murphy, who entered as a pinch-hitter, and then worked a scoreless ninth to notch his third save of the season.